Among the many people Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line have to thank for the success of “Meant to Be” is Charlie Puth. Not because he had anything to do with the track, but because it was his having to bow out at the last minute on a co-writing session with the Florida Georgia Line camp that created an opening in the Nashvillians’ schedule that Rexha spontaneously stepped into. After hearing of the Puth cancellation, they’d called it quits for the evening and left the Sunset Marquis’ in-house Nightbird Studios to walk down the Strip for dinner when they got a call that Rexha was available. The fact that Rexha and the FGL guys weren’t terribly familiar with each other’s work was hardly an insurmountable obstacle.
In fact, Rexha had mistaken Florida Georgia Line for another group with a three-word moniker when her manager, Adam Mersel, called to set up the blind date that night. The FGL camp still likes to razz her about how she was expecting… Little Big Town. “That was real,” Rexha admits with a laugh. “I had met Little Big Town at the AMAs last year, so that’s who I thought I was being put together with. I knew it was two girls and two guys, so I was just a little confused” when only dudes came through the door “and I found out I was very wrong.”
A bit of anxiety lingered even after that case of mistaken identity was cleared up. “I was very, very nervous, because I’d never written with a country artist before and don’t know how to write a country song. I only knew what I thought country music was. But Tyler (Hubbard of FGL), (producer/co-writer) David Garcia and (co-writer) Josh Miller were a support system throughout the process and guided me to sing what I wanted to sing. When that started happening, the nerves just went out the window.”
Adds Hubbard, “I think Bebe might have been thinking we were going to write a country song, and we were probably thinking, ‘Let’s try to write a pop song.’ I remember saying, ‘Look, let’s not try to work in anybody’s box. Let’s just try to write a great song that we can all be ourselves on.’” The relaxed result landed in another very specific genre: the sing-along-for-the-next-century genre.
Hubbard arrived at the studio with a title. “I just remember walking back from dinner and getting a little nervous, going a little bit out of our comfort zone,” says the FGL singer. “And my wife Haley said, ‘Hey, y’all just relax, have a good time, and if it’s meant to be, it’ll be.’” Bingo. Garcia started playing a piano riff for everyone to vibe to, and within a couple of hours, “Meant to Be” was written… and already half-produced. Says Garcia, “What you hear on the record is literally exactly what I played that day. Because I produce as well, I’m kind of making a record from jump street.” A good part of the vocals were recorded during that writing session: “You’re only going to be able to capture a really amazing performance one time, and a lot of times the minute when you’re writing is the minute it’s most real to that artist.” They mostly finished the single the next day, although Rexha and FGL recorded some additional vocals later.
Did they realize they had lightning in a bottle? Not that night. “I knew that we wrote something really quick and that it sounded somewhat special,” Rexha says, “but I didn’t know how big it was until the next morning until I slept on it and my ears were cleared. When I heard it in the morning, I sent it to my family group chat, and everybody was like, ‘Oh… my… gosh.’ Everybody freaked out over it. So it was then I knew we had something really special.”
There was the question of whose album (or in this case, EP) it was destined for. “I think it could have been on either,” Rexha says. “I think they would have probably produced it to be a bit more country” if it’d gone on FGL’s. Garcia says he was in touch with Rexha’s A&R at Warner Bros. “and we all kept coming back around to the song, saying, is this great or are we all crazy?” He added some 808 flourishes once it was determined the song was tipping toward her record. “That was kind of a big conversation that we had (with Warner Bros.), which was ‘Hey, we need to make sure that this kind of fits Bebe’s aesthetic a little bit more,’ even though we knew Tyler and Brian were starting the first verse and all that. So the urban-leaning presentation of it was definitely intentional.” Her people took a chance that the FGL guys’ accents wouldn’t be off-putting to a pop audience — which, fortunately, had already been proven before, since they’d had a collaborative smash with Nelly, “Cruise,” in 2012. As FGL’s Brian Kelley says, “On her record, it kind of stuck out like a sore thumb — in a good way, because all her other songs sounded so different.”
Warner Bros. pushed it to No. 2 at Top 40, but there were no plans to work it at country radio at all; after all, FGL had another single, “Smooth,” bubbling under the top 10. But FGL manager Seth England, among others, noticed that “Meant to Be” was “streaming 10 times as much as our country focus track that was almost in the top 10. We said, ‘Should we abort mission?’”
Jimmy Harnen, president of the duo’s BMLG label home, recalls: “Scott Borchetta and I were sitting next to each other in an A&R meeting and he looked at me and goes, ‘You want to flip them?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not? That song’s a monster.’” But England can provide the “why not”: “That’s never happened at country radio, that I can remember. And we did have a lot of concerned PDs” — not just because of the abrupt switch, but because not everyone in country was down with a song that’d already embraced at pop radio, and one where FGL had been semi-arbitrarily listed as the “featuring…” artist, to boot. Even at its peak, a dozen reporting country stations refused to add it. But the collaboration between Big Machine and Warner couldn’t have gone smoother: “There was this fun camaraderie between promotion teams,” says England, “of who could deliver the better week.”
Everyone involved is still having a pretty great week. “Meant to Be” had a 50-week run atop the Billboard Country Songs chart, finally getting toppled in November by Kane Brown. Yes, that’s a record, but the record was actually set way back in July at the 35-week point. That enduring run is based more on digital consumption than radio play, since the country format mostly had to move on. In fact, FGL has already had a No. 1 radio song since then, “Simple,” which was kept from topping the all-consumption Hot Country Songs chart only because they were blocking themselves. That song is from FGL’s fourth album, which had to be pushed back from last June to February 2019, in the “everyone should have such problems” department.
Rexha finds herself currently the most successful woman in country music, by some metrics, based on one tune she has no plans to immediately repeat. “I was confused,” she admits. “I was like, this is weird. I never expected to even go to the CMAs or ACMs,” let alone be a featured star. “It was a big shock to me.”
A happy shock, in the age where radio formats have to adapt to the genre agnosticism of streaming consumers. Says Harnen, “Like I told our staff, ‘Guys, if country music fans are liking and consuming the song, then it’s a country song.’ What makes music so great now is that it’s boundary-less. People listen to a top 40 station and go to a country station or alternative station and don’t think twice. And when you put two great artists like Bebe and FGL together, you’re just fishing with more lines in the water.”
Would they say that its record-breaking success was… well, you know… meant to be? Garcia, for his part, believes predestination was a factor. “I definitely believe that the God factor played a massive role,” says the producer. “I mean, anybody that’s worked in the music business knows that one genre is hard enough to tackle. Two artists from two different genres on one song? There’s a lot of hurdles and moving pieces and a lot of red tape to kind of get around. With what’s happened, there were just too many happy coincidences, you would say. I definitely think there was something greater at work.”
And it’s still finding fresh fans, in this fragmented music age. “We live in a big old world and there are a lot of people that don’t know who Florida Georgia Line or Bebe Rexha are and never heard ‘Meant to Be’ that are still discovering it,” says Hubbard.